Biblical Authority & Tradition: A Moderate’s View
Fundamentalists view the Bible as the infallible and unwavering word of God. They see every sentence – every word – contained in it as accurate and historically true. They feel that to deny the historical accuracy of everything that is related in the bible is to deny God’s truth, and God’s very message.
They unfortunately are looking at scripture through the eyes of a modern, western mind, and not through the eyes of an ancient, Middle Eastern Israelite – the people who actually wrote the Bible.
What they would have understood, is that accuracy and truth are not the same thing; you can be historically inaccurate, but still be unwaveringly and resolutely faithful to God’s truth.
Does even a fundamentalist believe that a Samaritan saved a man beaten on the highway? Or that a woman persistently petitioned a judge until he found in her favour? Or that any of the things in Yeshua`’s parables actually happened? No. They were all made up, but that’s not what’s important; they teach us important lessons.
Did what is related in the Bible really happen?
Even within Talmidaism, answers to this question will range from, “Yes, absolutely!” to, “No, it’s all just myth.” My personal view lies somewhere in between.
I think the first eleven chapters of Genesis are pure myth – yet lessons there to teach us wisdom. From Abraham onwards, I think that these stories have some basis in reality, even though the generations over time may have embellished them. I don’t agree with the view that people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Aaron never existed.
For example, we have the commandment that only a direct male descendent of Aaron can be a priest – a Kohein (Cohen). DNA tests have shown that the majority of Cohens do indeed share a single male ancestor who lived about 3500 years ago – about the time the bible says that Aaron lived.
The discovery of cuneiform tablets at Ebla has given us evidence for names that are found nowhere else but in the bible – like Abraham and Israel – and the cities of the plain of Sodom are mentioned in the tablets in exactly the same order as they appear in the book of Genesis.
I also feel that we look for evidence of the people and events of the bible in the wrong time period. Historians look at Egypt of 1200 BCE and see no evidence of the Exodus, or of the sojourn of the Israelites there. But go back to the time period the bible says the Exodus took place – about 3450 years ago – and you will find Goshen – modern Avaris – and a cult statue of a Semitic vizier to Pharaoh, and the residency of a large Semitic population in this area.
Both extremisms are unreasonable
I think that the ultra-fundamentalist view – that everything in the bible is literally true; and the ultra-liberal view – that none of it happened – are both untenable.
The fundamentalist view that everything is literally true, misses the point of the lessons of the stories. For example, the first story of creation; fundamentalists look at this and fight tooth and nail to defend the view that the world really was created in six days. In doing so, they miss the lessons that this story is supposed to teach us – that YHVH is the sole creator of all that exists; that He created order out of chaos; that behind everything that happens, there is meaning and purpose; that the heavenly bodies should be used to calculate the times, festivals and seasons; that God set human beings as caretakers over His creation; that God created male and female as equal; why we have a seven day week; and last of all, why the Sabbath exists.
The opposite standpoint is unreasonable too – that NOTHING in it is even remotely true. Why invent and record lists of names of people who never existed (e.g. in the Book of Numbers)? Why include minor details of events that add nothing to the story (like in the Books of Judges, Kings and Chronicles)?
I also feel that it is not dangerous to acknowledge that the Books of the Bible underwent many generations of editing, that there are several sources to the books of the Torah – Yahwist, Elohist and Priestly. A fundamentalist cannot countenance this; an ultra-liberal will use it as proof of the unreliability of the bible.
I think there is a third way. There were several traditions of the same story, and a little of God’s truth was to be found in each one. In the Israelite way of looking at things, the treasure was not in the historical details, but rather in the moral lesson that is being portrayed. In order to give the whole picture, a threading and weaving together of various literary traditions has to be made.
There are a few translations of the bible that honestly state in their footnotes, “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”. This is likely to be as a result of nearly a thousand years of copying from copies of copies of copies. Strange words and odd sentences are most likely a result of letters misread by one scribe, or transposed by another. How could this happen?
In Hebrew, there are no vowels. To someone whose native language is Hebrew, this doesn’t present any problem. However, after the Babylonian exile, the language spoken by the Jewish people was Aramaic, so only the learned few could remember how Hebrew was pronounced (and therefore what vowels should be inserted, and as a result what meaning was intended). In addition, the alphabet used before the Exile was Paleo-Hebrew, but afterwards it was Aramaic (which is still used to write Hebrew today). And it was made all the worse by the fact that for a very long time, spaces were not put in between words.
Consider the following English sentence, written in the way that ancient Hebrew would have been set out (ie with no vowels and no spaces):
Can you tell where the spaces should go between the words? Can you even understand it, even though it is in your own language? Imagine furthermore having to copy something like that in a language which was not your mother tongue, and from an alphabet which is not the one you normally read in. That was the task faced by scribes copying texts after the Exile. In my opinion, this was the probable period when all those words warranting the footnote “meaning of Hebrew uncertain” crept in.
(Incidentally, the sentence above should read:
“Errors of the eye may be the result of a scribe attempting to read the handwriting of an earlier scribe, whose handwriting is often illegible or who used an archaic script”).
Now with all this confusion, you can do one of two things. You can refuse to accept these facts, and stubbornly insist that every word of the bible was written by the hand of God all in one go as one complete and finished work; or you can sit up and take notice of the actual message of the bible. A fundamentalist concentrates too much on the form; a realist seeks out the message, and the heart of God. One word difference here and there cannot ever alter the central message of the bible: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8; see also Amos 5:15 and Zechariah 7:9).
Fundamentalists have asked me, “If the words of the bible can be corrupted, then what possible reason can there be for taking any notice of it?”
My answer is, if someone tells you to show compassion towards others, not to harm children, to care for the sick and the elderly, do you first say, ‘Wait, I’ve got to check first to see if that’s what the bible says’? I would hope not! Would you not already know from the heart which God has placed within you that this is what we are to do?
I have an enormous respect for the words of scripture. I value them and I do my best to live by them. I do not consider any part of scripture an irrelevance or of little account. My respect for Torah and the Prophets has increased, not decreased.
There is but one thing that is inviolable and incorrupt, and that is God. Make every endeavour to reach directly into the very heart of God, and listen carefully to His voice, and I promise you, you will be a better person for it, and will live a life free of some of the worries and doubts that religion can bring.
I want to close with a quote that a dear friend wrote in the front page of a bible that he gave another friend as a present: “This is a window, not a painting”. Looking at a painting, the details are static, the image is lifeless – this is fundamentalism. However, if you view the bible as a window, you will understand much more, you will be able to follow the trains of spiritual thought and development of the Israelite mind, and ultimately you will get a glimpse of the living God Himself.